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Adventures in Writing, Reading & Book Culture

Czech National Library

I thought I might as well get a library card while in Prague. The Czech National Library has a pretty good collection, at 6 million volumes (purchasing an additional 80k per year), as their website shows. The national library is housed in an old Jesuit college built in 1556 (220 years before the signing of USA’s Declaration of Independence), itself built upon the ruins of an old Dominican monastery founded in the 11th Century. I mention these historical factoids not because I’m so enamored of history (I am), but because I walked around this building for at least 20 minutes before I saw a book.

From the outside, the Klementinum looks like so many other old buildings found in Prague: brown stone stacked like wedding cakes up to ten stories, looking like a bank vault or military headquarters. Of course, being the former Jesuit college, I might have guessed. Now, my point today was to go and read in the Reading Room, a room with tables and chairs lined in the center, surrounded by book cases, in a high-ceilinged room, with a full wall of floor-to-ceiling windows. You’ll recognize this description if you’ve visited NYC Pub Library, or perhaps the LOC in DC (famously captured in “All the President’s Men”). I thought the reading room would be a good place for me to hang out in the future, during down times between classes.

I was wrong.

Firstly, you can’t take a backpack into the reading room. Backpacks and coats must be checked into storage. Any books you take into the reading room must be listed on a piece of paper, and upon your exit will be examined against said books. In short, the security taken to ensure no old, musty books are kited from the building (not that anyone can FIND books there!) prevents the casual reader (me) from wanting to bother. Why do I want to have to pull out pens, notebooks & books – my laptop – just to sit in a big white-washed room for an hour or two?

If NY or Chicago placed these restrictions on visitors, those libraries would be empty. Not that the Czech’s shouldn’t want to preserve and protect their collection, but there are many more modern ways of handling security than making visitors jump through such precautionary hoops. Odd though, walking through a library and not seeing any books. They must store them in the back, and upon finding them in the old card catalogues (yeah, these line the halls), attendents must fetch them from the interior somewhere.

This reminds me of a story by Jorge Luis Borges, “The Library of Babel”, a library that is hundreds of stories high, thousands of interconnecting rooms holding all the known information about the world past, present and (predictably so) the future, in books with identical covers, all 410 pages long. Millions upon millions of volumes exist in this libary, and the codebook for what they contain, and where specific titles are located, has been lost. The allegory of THE UNIVERSE in all its combinations is obvious; so too is the idea of gathered information whose understanding is lost if its knowledge cannot be found and substantiated in THE BOOK. Furthermore, the sentences “It suffices that a book be possible for it to exist. Only the impossible is excluded.” is a nod toward all philosophers who used reasoning to prove the existence of God.

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